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A major concern someone or other brings up against practically every suggestion to broaden the uses of cockpit voice recordings or add cockpit image/video recorders to the mix (both of these, especially the latter, being actions that accident investigators have long urged regulatory agencies and aircraft operators to implement in the name of air safety, and which the regulators and the operators have, for just as long, worked to weasel out of), and one which dates right back to when CVRs were first introduced, is that doing so would supposedly be a violation of the pilots' privacy.1

This concern seems somewhat misplaced:

  • For pilots operating commercially (including those operating the vast majority of the flights that would fall under the aforementioned proposed recording-expansion mandates), the cockpit is their workplace and the aircraft an item of company equipment, and there has generally never been any expectation of privacy for workers in the workplace while on duty, especially not as regards the use of company-owned equipment.3
  • For general-aviation pilots, the only time when they would be required to turn the recorded data over to anyone would be following an accident or incident, when the pilot(s) would have little reason (and, depending on the nature of the occurrence, may have been definitively rendered unable) to object to handing the data over.

Where, then, is the justification for these alleged concerns?


1: Other excuses offered for not installing cockpit image recorders are the large amounts of oh-so-expensive storage required to record and store cockpit video (which most likely stopped being a valid concern in the early 1970s, with the advent of miniaturised videotape systems with recording lengths of up to an hour - twice the length of contemporary CVRs! - and is a frankly ridiculous argument to make nowadays, when a tebibyte of solid-state flash memory, enough for dozens to hundreds of hours of high-res cockpit video from multiple vantage points, can be had for less than a hundred bucks in a package the size of a candy bar2), and the supposed uselessness of recorded image data for accident-investigation purposes (a contention easily refuted by a cursory glance at the many accidents and incidents that have prompted accident investigators to repeatedly and consistently urge for the installation of CIRs, as well as by five minutes’ or so thought about all the things that could be useful to an accident investigation and which would show up on a video recording, but not - or, at least, not identifiably - on an audio recording).

2: In fact, the storage for a CIR would probably be less expensive than that in a consumer-grade SSD, as flight recorders, which record data in strict sequential order and where data recoverability is far more critical than data access control, would not use the complex encryption and wear-levelling circuitry found in most consumer flash devices.

3: This is why (for example) it is both legal and ubiquitous for companies to install software on their work computers to remotely monitor what their employees are doing on said computers.

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    $\begingroup$ I get where you are coming from. The argument can definitively be made for commercial operations. Not just for air carriers. I know of at least 1 external load helicopter operator that uses video recording extensively. The U.S. Helicopter Safety Team is promoting wider use. Not-for-hire pilots would be a hard sell. Especially in the US where freedom and privacy is of paramount importance for most. We have the technology to put such surveillance in cars as well. Americans would not like to have their personal spaces (house, car, plane) monitored. Even the spector of big brother would be fought $\endgroup$ – Dean F. May 26 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ Your assumption about privacy expectations may not always be accurate. Depending on the country and the union agreement (if any), it's possible that employees may indeed have privacy protections in the workplace. There's a ton of employment law around workplace monitoring and if you don't get a good answer here you might consider asking in the law and/or workplace stacks about precedents for continuously recording everything that employees say, whether work-related or not. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife May 26 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ "there has generally never been any expectation of privacy for workers in the workplace while on duty"—nobody likes working in a panopticon. Workers frequently want some degree of privacy, whether through an informal process ("if my boss insists on looking over my shoulder every damn minute I'm going to find another job") or though union negotiations. Workers do accept some trade-offs to their privacy, either because it's important for their job or because they have no other option, but workers with bargaining power often do consider privacy to be something worth bargaining for. $\endgroup$ – Zach Lipton May 26 at 1:50
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    $\begingroup$ I'd note that one of your links discusses an example of an abuse of privacy with CVR systems, so it's not just a theoretical problem. $\endgroup$ – Zach Lipton May 26 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ Good question! I though blackboxes records were only read in case of investigation triggered by incident or accident, in which case privacy is not a concern (every element can be meaningful, even the ambiance in the cockpit can bring element about CRM). Moreover, sterile cockpit rule implies no private exchange during the concerned flight phases. $\endgroup$ – Manu H May 26 at 5:54
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I will answer this question with the caveat that it is asking for an opinion, and therefore your experience may vary due to different regulatory authorities. I answer this question from an Australian CASA context but note that while there are differences between CASA, EASA and FAA, they operate so similar that in many cases the courseware I teach to students to become an engineer under those systems is almost identical. Therefore, I feel like I am able to make an informed opinion on the matter even though the courseware I teach is primarily designed for a CASA context. Having said that, If your aviation regulatory authority is not based under those I have just mentioned, I have no idea. Go consult their regulations if that is the case.

I will now paraphrase from an avionics textbook on module 13 (avionics instruments other - Cockpit Voice Recorder system) under the CASA part 66 licence outcomes:

-It is an offence under the Air Navigation Act 1920 to disclose any information on a cockpit voice recorder for the purposes other than that listed in part 2A of this act. This means that unless it is directly related to the investigation of an accident it will not be made public.

-CVR recordings may not be used as evidence in any criminal or civil proceedings within Australia

-CVR recordings cannot be used as grounds for any disciplinary action by employers

-It is an offence to make public any CVR recording. Large fines apply

-Only the investigative authority in the course of investigation or court order is to disclose the recording for the express purpose that it is relevant to understanding the cause of an accident

My text goes on to mention things like if the recording is distressing then a transcript should be made and the original recording not played if it does not add anything to the investigation.

My textbook does not specifically mention video recording systems but I would say they fall under the definition in the Air Navigation Act 1920 and therefore treated the same. But this is something lawyers can fight over.

To some up then, due to the points raised above, I feel like there are no grounds to feel concerned about your privacy if there were increases in recording. This is due to the protection given for your personal data under the act. Each nation should have a similar act that protects people in a similar way. If it doesn't, I would hope your workers union could lobby for change. There are no downsides I can see to increasing recording time and increasing the use of video in the name of safety, especially where a rigid protocol of non-disclosure exists in the form of appropriate legislation. Privacy concerns can only exist in a world where you are not confident in the system providing the protections.

I will finish by adding another opinion on the subject. The only time I wouldn't recommend increasing recording is on very light airframes where space and weight is an issue. There is an ongoing trend in the last 40 years or more and more flight parameters being recorded under the regs, so it makes sense to also find new and innovative ways to record video and voice in the cockpit as well.

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